Just in time for the 2011-12 regular season tip-off, our CIS basketball preview series gets under way looking at the Canada West Universites Athletic Association.
With a hat-tip to Canada West insider Wayne Thomas and his informative season previews, it's time to look at who the contenders for this year's Canada West title will be. Following here are the teams who have a shot to make the Final Four and - maybe - move on to the Final 8.
Some explanation of the stats: The RPI ranking includes all 2010-11 games (exhibition, season, playoffs, Final 8). Top 100 players refers to the Player Efficiency Rankings for 2010-11. Other statistics referenced can be found at the CIS site.
We'll go through the contenders in Canada West today, with the other conferences to follow next week.
Last year's results: 19-3 regular season, lost in Canada West Championship game, lost in Final 8 semi-finals (3rd in RPI)
Top 100 players: Jamelle Barrett (2), Nolan Brudehl (41), Michael Lieffers (63), Duncan Jones (87).
Outlook: After last year's three-team dogfight out west, the Huskies are poised to become favourites this year. While UBC and Trinity Western have lost some major players, Saskatchewan has the firepower to set themselves apart from the competition, led by reigning Canada West Player of the Year Jamelle Barrett. Barrett is simply one of the best players in the country, with a combination of skills and athleticism that make him borderline unguardable.
But what makes the Huskies so dangerous is not only Barrett, but the bevy of solid Saskatchewan role players who do their jobs very well. Brudehl and Lieffers aren't flashy, but they get rebounds, clog up the passing lanes and finish plays well, while Jones is a lethal sharpshooter who stretches the floor and makes defences pay for helping in the paint (otherwise known as Carleton-ing). And while Rejean Chabot is gone, the Huskies have replaced him with a bigger, more athletic scoring guard in Winnipeg transfer Peter Lomuro. If these guys can stay healthy, the Huskies should be the favourites this year.
ALBERTA GOLDEN BEARS
Last year's results: 15-8 regular season, lost in Canada West Final Four (12th in RPI)
Top 100 players: Jordan Baker(4), Daniel Ferguson (7)
Outlook: Perhaps the Golden Bears will go as far as their dynamic duo is able to take them. Baker was a sensation last year, becoming a nightly double-double threat and flourishing as a dangerously athletic forward with three-point range, while Ferguson grew into a mature, explosive scorer. With last year's trip to the final four under their belts and another year to establish their skills, Alberta has to be considered one of the elite teams in the country this year. There are just so many problems associated with trying to guard a team with two explosive, powerful players with complimentary skills sets. Both Baker and Ferguson are capable of scoring late in the shot clock and are powerful assets in running half-court sets. The expectations are going to be much higher this year for Alberta.
Last year's results: 22-2 regular season, won Canada West championship, lost in Final 8 semi-finals (2nd in RPI)
Top 100 players: Nathan Yu (70), Doug Plumb (94)
Outlook: The post-Josh Whyte era begins with some questions to answer, but none more concerning than this lineup's depth. The Thunderbirds made life difficult for opposing teams last year thanks to a very physical style of play, but with Whyte, Brent Malish and floor general Alex Murphy gone, they might not have the luxury of depth to keep up that style of play. UBC still imposes a very physical presence thanks to Kamar Burke, Graham Bath and Doug Plumb and has a very capable floor leader in crafty guard Nathan Yu. If they can get some solid floor time from big guard Tommy Nixon and foul-troubled big man Balraj Bains, they can overcome their losses to stay as a championship contender. But those are some big questions that will take some time to answer for coach Kevin Hanson and his team.
Last year's results: 7-16 regular season, missed playoffs (31st in RPI)
Top 100 players: Tyler Fidler (11)
Outlook: The answer to two big health questions could make a huge difference for the Dinos' contending hopes this year. After a disappointing 2010-11 campaign in which they missed the playoffs, Calgary looked to make a splash by bringing in transfer Boris Bakovic (and a few other notable recruits) and getting speedy guard Jarred Ogungbemi-Jackson back from a lost season due to an ankle injury. But Bakovic has suffered an injury of his own and may not play this season, leaving two major questions at the crux of Calgary's outlook: Can Bakovic return in time to make an impact? Can Ogungbemi-Jackson return to the form that saw him make a huge impact as a rookie?
The Dinos will depend on fifth-year big man Fidler for some major production - he led the team with 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per game last year and is dependable for offensive production. They have two more dynamic transfers in Australian guard Josh Owen-Thomas and Arizonan Daryus Sconiers, giving the Dinos a very different look than last year. The questions remain about exactly what the team will look like and how they'll make a quick rebound from last year.
TRINITY WESTERN SPARTANS
Last year's results: 21-3 regular season, lost in Canada West semi-final, lost in CIS Championship game (6th in RPI)
Top 100 players: Calvin Westbrook (32), Tristan Smith (95)
Outlook: After a landmark season for the Trinity Western program last year, the Spartans look to shake off the graduation of some key players and return to contention - no small task considering Jacob Doerksen, Tyrell Mara and Tonner Jackson are among those gone. They've added some talent via transfers as usual, including former Ottawa guard Sean Peter, who should make an impact in his fifth year, and they've got two very dynamic scorers in Calvin Westbrook and Kyle Coston who should flourish in more prominent roles on offence. But though the Spartans have size and depth, it won't be easy replacing the guys they've lost. A repeat performance of last year's run would be very difficult to achieve.
Last year's results: 15-9 regular season, lost in first round of playoffs (15th in RPI)
Top 100 players: Ryan MacKinnon (14), Mike Berg (50)
Outlook: The Vikes don't have the same explosiveness of the other Canada West contenders - no Jamelle Barrets, no Tyler Fidlers - but they are an experienced group with a solid recruiting class that wouldn't surprise anyone with a winning record. Fifth-year wing MacKinnon returns as last year's leading scorer and a second-team All-Star, while Zac Andrus and Berg are capable players and valuable leaders. Thanks to a solid recruiting and transfer class, they'll also have considerable depth, led by Vancouver College transfer Reiner Theil and rookie guard Vijay Dhillon. Getting into the Canada West final four would be a solid accomplishment for this team, and with a senior group leading the way, it's certainly not out of the question.
Last year's results: 10-14 regular season, lost in first round of Canada West playoffs (26th in RPI)
Top 100 players: Joel Friesen (23), Sam Freeman (54)
Outlook: The Cascades enter the 2011-12 season hoping to make a similar leap from also-ran to contender to the one Trinity Western made last year. They've got two pretty solid lead guards in Friesen and Freeman, and are getting some size back from injury in Jasper Moedt and Kyle Grewal. The step up from mediocrity to contention isn't easy out West, with a whole lot of teams to go over before reaching the top of the mountain. But that first step always needs to be taken, and the Cascades have a good chance to do it this year.
Brian Decker is the National Basketball Editor at The CIS Blog. Contact him at bdecker1 at gmail.com.